Research & Insights

Faith-Based Messaging Can Help Rural Smokers Buck the Habit

By Melissa Bailey


Ganna Kostygina, University of California San Francisco
Ellen J. Hahn and Mary Kay Rayens, University of Kentucky College of Nursing

Anti-smoking groups have relied on a variety of messages over the years to get people to quit–everything from scare tactics to peer pressure.  And while these efforts have proved successful in contributing to an overall decline in smoking, a 2014 Gallup poll showed that in predominantly rural states, as many as 20 or 30 percent of people continue to light up. Now, new research suggests rural smokers might be persuaded to give up their habit by showing how smoking runs contrary to their faith or by reminding people of the risks to their health.

Ganna Kostygina at the University of California San Francisco and Ellen J. Hahn and Mary Kay Rayens at the University of Kentucky College of Nursing recently studied which marketing techniques worked best to motivate rural communities to support smoke-free policies. They found that negative emotional tone, appeals to religiosity, and shifting focus away from smokers are among the more effective strategies to capture rural audiences’ attention.

Published in the 2013 issue of the journal Health Education Research, the study involved participants from three different rural counties in Kentucky. They were shown 17 different advertisements ranging from a cartoon with the message, “If you’re in my space, don’t blow smoke in my face,” to a picture of a child with the potential health risks of secondhand smoke printed with it. Researchers aimed to test the effectiveness of ads that were light-hearted, serious, humorous, religious, or health-oriented.

The participants then ranked each ad on its ability to promote action. They were asked a series of questions about the ads ability to motivate viewers to seek more information about smoke-free policies, get involved in activating those policies, and seek out more information about the health consequences of secondhand smoke.

The researchers found that faith-based ads, which featured quotes from the Book of Matthew, and ads that emphasized the health cost of continuing to smoke were ranked as the most effective. “Convince the smokers it[‘s] not about them and go from there” suggested one of the study participants. “It’s about cooperation and saving people’s lives.”

However, ads that attacked smokers, such as a message that said “smokers kill non-smokers,” and ads that emphasized the benefits of proposed policies – i.e. “smoke-free policies save lives”- scored the lowest.

“Because rural residents are exposed to the effects of sophisticated pro-tobacco advertisement, communication research on smoke-free message effectiveness and information needs among rural populations is clearly important,” the researchers write.

“The findings presented in this study are a starting point for the development of community campaigns to promote policy change targeted at rural residents,” suggest the researchers. “Message frames, emotional tone and appeal types are critical factors that need to be considered when designing smoke-free messages.”

Health Education Research

Melissa Bailey is a graduate from the University of Florida with degrees in Journalism and Biology. Follow her on Twitter.

Posted: June 17, 2015
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